The Battle of Aachen - Part One
The Battle of Aachen (7-21 October 1944)
In strict historical terms, there were several battles of Aachen: let’s start the story here, with Part One.
The longest duration was the RAF’s strategic bombing campaign, which started on 14 May 1940 and ended on 29 May 1944. During that period, the RAF Operational Research Unit recorded 147 air raids of different sizes and scales.
The two most destructive city-wide bombing raids were on 12/13 July 1943 and 11 April 1944. Regardless of the raids, the city suffered a relatively lower death toll due to the frontier fortifications and the air raid bunkers.
However, pressure from the populace in the spring of 1940 led to a rapid construction programme of bunkers and air raid shelters. The Nazis feared the volatility of the largely Catholic population and the potential violent reaction to being Germany’s frontline city in a bombing war. In this context, Nazi propaganda about bombing Britain with ferocity backfired with counter fears of being bombed – the local civilian protests against the regime have since been lost in the city’s historical memory.
A strange, confused second battle developed between the populace, the regime and the German Army between August and October 1944. Following the April-May 1944 air raids, Aachen was effectively a dead city. There was no electricity or gas, the water pipes were broken, and most houses were exposed to the elements.
RAF recce photo, 14 July 1943
Work in the factories had ended and most workers were housed in the shelters. Since 1941 there had been mass evacuations of the population to the German heartland. In 1943 at least 40,000 civilians had left the city. In the summer of 1944, there were between 20-40,000 still residing within the city limits.
Then, as the US Army approached the county borders to the south, on 10 September, the city was riddled with panic. The regime, the Nazi officials, order-police, and gestapo all fled, leaving the civilians to fend for themselves.
Elements of the 116the Panzer Division entered the city to restore order, stopped the evacuation and tried to hand a ‘free’ city over to the mercy of the allies. The US Army didn’t advance – this may have been due to the Arnhem operations – and the Panzer division commander was forced to take control of the city.
In the process of imposing order, we know the commander executed two 14-year-old boys for plundering. Today, we also know the executions were an attempt by the general to avoid execution for wilfully disobeying a Hitler order.
Eventually, a German infantry division took command of the city and began to prepare for a siege. The twin belts of the Siegfried Line had protected and encased Aachen in fortifications. Many parts of the Siegfried Line had been abandoned in early September and the Germans brought up reserves to try to reoccupy those fortifications.
The US Army had cut through the line and pressed toward an encirclement manoeuvre of the city. Its aim was to isolate the city from outside support prior to pacification. US Army assault engineers undertook constant missions, under heavy fire, to destroy or render useless all bunkers and fortifications along the Siegfried Line. They were preventing the Germans from re-capturing or getting a foothold on the lines or manning them with strong forces.
Serious fighting developed to the north, with counterattacks by large panzer forces being interdicted by fighter-bombers from USAAF IX Air Force. An encirclement of sorts was formed by the end of September, but the Germans were able to resupply and escape without too much interference until the end of the siege on 21 October 1944…